Video games, despite having always featured cinematic elements to some extent, have never been as close to convergence with pure cinematic experiences as they are today. The advance in tools and technologies available to developers have rendered questions such as "when is a game not a game?" more relevant and actionable than ever before. The premise that small independent teams can deliver experimental interactive experiences was the main driver behind our Identity prototype development.
Identity is a game that is a proof of concept for a set of tools that we custom developed to deliver interactive and non-linear immersive narrative experiences. As a baseline we sought to marry two vastly different tools available to game developers today. On one end of the spectrum, we were in love with Twine (the open source story editor) as a branching/interactive fiction writing tool. On the complete other end of game development we'd just published our (and one of the earliest worldwide) PlayStation 3 games developed using the Unity 3D engine. The mission was to enable game designers and script writers to easily develop storylines and to see them mirrored live in a 3D game environment with no programming skills required. Furthermore, we wanted to give our non-technical designers a tool to create and manage layouts and UX elements themselves, rather than having them go back to the programmers for every new button or dialogue placement.
To that effect we developed three pieces of technology that have fulfilled our aims and allowed us to demonstrate the effectiveness in a live game project. Firstly, we developed a 2D UI editor that runs outside of the complex and intimidating Unity environment and which translates any created UI templates into XML files that can be used within the game screens. Secondly, we built a Twine to Lua converter tool which allows us to render the non-linear narrative threads developed in Twine into pieces of code which can be understood by the game engine. This also meant that we could now embed Lua commands (which are simple enough to be used by non-programmers) in the actual Twine script. Essentially this gave the game and story designers the power to do things like jump between scenes, camera angles, display UI elements and generally "direct" the game straight from a text based tool which they were already familiar with.
Lastly, we extended the already powerful Unity 3D engine to enable both tools described above and added a proprietary menu item which enables the team to set up and save cameras within the 3D scenes to be called up from Twine with simple Lua commands.
To test all of the above we set about designing a point and click adventure game with a wildy branching narrative. Identity sees the player regain consciousness on a London underground tube carriage with no recollection of who they are. Player choices take the storyline in vastly different directions. The non-linearity of the narrative means that the gameplay path is equally non-linear, and so mini-games and puzzles which the player encounters in one path might not necessarily show up if different choices are made. This makes the game (and story) highly replayable as the players seek to explore all possible paths and outcomes.The game story is designed in an episodic fashion, with all possible story outcomes resulting in cliffhangers that would be picked up in a sequel.
Furthermore, we designed a multiplayer component to the game that is non-traditional and that acts as a form of a social experiment. Where players get stuck or require assistance within the game, we discourage the use of cheats or walkthroughs by allowing the player to "phone" another user who has already completed that particular mission. The in-game phone rings on the advanced player's side and they are presented with a choice of either helping out the caller or leading them on a wild goose chase by providing false information. These choices (also designed using the Twine tool) provide us with information about player choices when it comes to helping others out, with a reward and penalty system unobtrusively built in to impact the players in a karmic cycle.
Our entry to this competition is both the tools we developed which are highly reusable and allow for the exploration of interactive and non-linear narrative within an immersive 3D environment, as well as the pilot project of Identity as a standalone game developed for touchscreen devices including phones, tablets and handheld consoles such as the PlayStation Vita.
Quirkat is a London based independent multiplatform game developer licensed to develop for all major console platforms and with ten years of experience developing and publishing winning interactive experiences.